Common Ground: Sheriff Benny Napoleon’s prescription for peace

Common Ground: Sheriff Benny Napoleon’s prescription for peace
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At one point, the searches became so frequent young Benny Napoleon removed a car seat, so officers didn’t have to bother yanking it loose when they stopped him to look for guns or drugs.

It was the early 1970s and Detroit Police STRESS (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets) units, which would soon be disbanded by Mayor Coleman A. Young, often made it a priority to profile young men of color. Sadly, driving his father’s Cadillac made teenaged Napoleon even more of a suspect for illegal activity. He remembers being pulled over, repeatedly, not long after getting his license, while doing nothing more than cruising to the east side to visit his grandparents.

“I was a young, black man growing up in Detroit in the 10th Precinct. This kind of thing was happening all the time,” Napoleon recalls.

Then came the night an officer racked his shotgun and pointed it at a buddy riding with Napoleon: “N—–, don’t get nervous, and I won’t,” the patrolman warned.

“It’s important for both sides to do what’s practical to protect themselves.” -Sherriff Benny Napoleon

In the final weeks of a year when relations between citizens and police nationwide have been at their most publicly tense since the 1960s, Napoleon’s memories are still clear. Now sheriff of Wayne County, he shares with TheHUB his personal and professional advice about how residents and law enforcement in urban cities can move peacefully into 2017.

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Wayne County Sherriff Benny Napoleon advocates for positive relationships between police and community.

“Stopping a car is a dangerous thing,” says Napoleon, who joined the Detroit Police Department in 1975. “You have to have a heightened sense of caution. I get it, and it’s important for both sides to do what’s practical to protect themselves.”

Napoleon became an officer, despite his negative experiences, he says, to answer Young’s call for a change of the department’s culture. The police force was about 10 percent black and complaints of racism were common.

While much has changed in Detroit since the 1970s, Napoleon says mutual respect between law enforcement and residents remains crucial, not only in this city but across the nation. There are about 800,000 police officers in America.

“Overwhelmingly, overwhelmingly, they do the jobs they’re supposed to do,” says Napoleon. “What you’re seeing is a small, small, super-small portion of people who do their job in the wrong way.”

Although major movements, like Black Lives Matter and frequent citizen demonstrations, have helped bring to light the need for police reform and greater measurers to ensure justice, an average of 161 officers are assaulted, disabled, or injured daily, according to the National Association of Chiefs of Police.

Detroit’s history and cultural makeup give it advantages in law enforcement where other cities find themselves challenged, says Napoleon.

“I think, quite honestly, that is one of the reasons you don’t see some of the conflicts in this community that you see in other communities. Almost everybody in the city of Detroit has a relative or knows somebody who is a member of the police department,” he says.

From church congregations to college fraternities, members of local law enforcement are often found living and interacting with their neighbors. Napoleon says he also encourages officer involvement in Detroit youth programs like the Police Athletic League, where he has coached, and in other community initiatives. To further community engagement, the sheriff’s office provides gifts for Detroit children during the holiday season.

“That’s why I remain a strong and vocal proponent of residency,” Napoleon adds. “I think communities should have the right to compel people who cash paychecks from those communities to live in those communities. When I was running for mayor my saying was, ‘You should lay your head where your make your bread.’”

Though much of local law enforcement is dedicated to service, even while the officers are not wearing uniforms, Napoleon doesn’t deny the presence of “cops that do things wrong.”

To help ensure peaceful encounters with officers Napoleon advises:

  • Keep both hands on the steering wheel or dashboard during traffic stops
  • Speak respectfully and cooperate, even if a stop seems unwarranted
  • Communicate your actions or ask permission to act, such as explaining where identification is located and asking to retrieve it
  • Avoid sudden or threatening movements
  • Record with cell phones or devices when they can be well-positioned and activated before officers approach
  • Avoid confrontation and file complaints after improper behavior

“What I would do is encourage people to try not to escalate a situation that is bad,” Napoleon says. “You obviously should do what is necessary to protect yourself.”

Napoleon, former Detroit Police chief and former chair of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, travels the country as a law enforcement reform expert. He argues for stronger measures of police fitness for duty. Even the most honorable, well-meaning officer is subject to marital problems, financial challenges and other stress that can translate to an unhealthy emotional state, so he says national standards for mental assessment should be established.

“(Personal issues) can do a lot to your psychological makeup and we don’t do anything to see if people’s makeup has changed since they were hired,” Napoleon says. “That’s why constant training and exams are important when it comes to a person’s psyche.”

Napoleon also advocates national standards for police recruiting, retention, and training. Budget cuts have often reduced funding for cultural sensitivity instruction and non-lethal weapons, he says.  Wayne County Executive Warren Evans helped arm deputies with 100 stun guns in recent years, which gives officers an alternative to using deadly force.

Citizen compliance helps prevent dangerous confrontations, Napoleon says, but citizen feedback helps hold officers accountable.

“You’re not going to win a fight with the police on the street,” he says. “You get a ticket, go to court, file a complaint. If nothing else, you get it on the record that this is an officer who has a problem with citizens.

“That’s why I encourage people to make those complaints. Because we need to know when we’ve got somebody on the streets who doesn’t need to be there.”

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